by Mark Aranovsky

Muzykal'naya Akademiya [Musical Academy]
No. 4 (1997), 2-3.

English version by Véronique Zaytzeff and Ian MacDonald

So much has been written or said about Shostakovich that adding something new seems a nearly impossible task. Indeed, almost all his compositions have been very intensively studied, his treatment of musical genres has been established, and the most diverse facets of his style have been researched. Various aspects of the composer's life have also become a topic of research, including aspects that present hardly any serious interest for the public. This has resulted in a large body of literature diverse in theme: from thoroughly researched works to the thoroughly trivial. The latter, it goes without saying, offend our taste and the memory of a great artist. However, to be a topic of interest not only of scientific, but also philistine minds, seems to be the fate of genius.

The field of musicology (particularly that of his native land) has indeed accomplished a great deal in comprehending the Shostakovich phenomenon. Yet, after the 'Shostakovich boom' of the Sixties and Seventies, the quantity of research decreased abruptly; it was generally felt as though the works of the great composer were entirely understood. Naturally, this was an illusion. The reason for this decrease lay elsewhere -- in the narrowness of the scientific paradigm formulated in our musicology, which became quasi-dogmatic. And, as is well known, any scientific paradigm plays the role of a sieve in selecting the objects of research in accordance to its distinctive methods while ignoring everything else. This was what happened here. The research focused solely on what corresponded to the traditional notion of musical structure and the fields of expertise in musicology, since Shostakovich's music fully complied with this notion. It was important to determine what innovations Shostakovich had contributed to the musical language of the twentieth century, and what his specific role had been as an innovator. On the whole, musicology has solved this problem, and the discoveries and observations made at the time have not lost any of their significance. The question lies elsewhere. Today we look at Shostakovich's art differently than we did in the past. The great artist's work, so recently experienced as contemporary, has become part of history before our eyes. His status has changed. The social context which gave meaning to the symbolism of his music for his contemporaries has likewise disappeared. And most importantly: the musical awareness of the last decades has been in many ways determined by a different artistic practice entailing new concepts of the organization of musical material and the principles of composition.

In point of fact, there is nothing unusual here. The hand of the clock of history always moves on, introducing new systems with new values; even genius cannot shield itself from the implacable judgement of time. Yet, while conceding the inevitability of such 'strides in history', we must acknowledge that they can bring with them not only gains, but also occasionally vexing losses. Such periodic transitions disrupt our living, spontaneous link with the music of earlier times: its umbilical connection to the present is cut. The genuine understanding which Shostakovich's music enjoyed during the time it captivated his contemporaries has been replaced by divergent opinions -- opinions which are, by turns, contingent, incorrect, unverified from personal experience -- or merely rational interpretations vitiated by obvious simplifications. It is not surprising that today we write and speak of Shostakovich in varying ways: with scepticism as well as enthusiasm, with condescension as well as deference, and with irascibility as well as indifference. Like no other major figure of twentieth century music, he remains a cause for argument.

As in death, he was fated to be at the heart of controversy during his life. However, if, during the Thirties and Fifties, Shostakovich was subjected to so-called 'right-wing' criticism from official circles professing the most reactionary conservatism, today he often becomes the target of attacks from the 'left', either from those post-war avant-garde adepts who see him as a traditionalist, or from 'truth lovers' bitten by the bug of unmasking, who smirk at his imagined conformity. Today it is very easy to be more Catholic than the Pope. It is more difficult to find what can be called the historical ear -- something that anyone who has pretensions to the title of music historian or music theorist should actually possess. Naturally, it is naive to expect younger generations to be informed of the social experience of the previous generations, for they will never be able to bridge this gap. They hear and see the recent past differently from those who experienced it, and that is not in the least surprising. Nevertheless, those who study the art of the past ought at least to try to correlate it with what used to be social practice during that time. The lack, among the young, of personal knowledge of these matters can be compensated by the study of historical facts and, naturally, as far as possible, by their correct interpretation. Otherwise, distortions -- or, at the least, superficial judgements -- will become etched in stone. To restore the historical truth and take a fresh look at Shostakovich's work are endeavors that are equally imperative today.

Thus, two questions acquire a particular importance: (1) was Shostakovich truly a traditionalist? and (2) what kind of relationships did his work have with official aesthetics? It should be noted that, because of historical reasons, both questions are tightly interwoven and must therefore be answered simultaneously.

The answer to the first question will depend on what meaning we give to the concept of tradition. If this is defined solely as the orthodoxy of the Forties and Fifties -- when tradition was understood, in essence, as the 'repetition of what had been done': a blind faithfulness toward the most academic standards of Russian music (first and foremost at the harmonic level) -- then, the answer will certainly be in the negative: in that sense, not only was Shostakovich not a traditionalist, but, on the contrary, he was the embodiment of what can boldly be called counter-tradition.

The perception of Shostakovich's music during those 'distant and remote years' can be its best witness. As is known, the listener's ear is, initially, subjected to the auditory effect of the music. If this corresponds to expectations, we may perceive the music's deeper, more significant levels. If, however, expectations are not fulfilled, there can be only two possibilities: either our perception will cross the threshold of the unfamiliar, or it will be defeated by musical difficulties, whereupon the question of content simply falls away. We can assert that, in most cases, Shostakovich's music did indeed transgress the system of expectations which society had developed at the time -- a system that, on the whole, was extremely conservative. In his music, everything was unusual, from 'intonation' to dramatic conception. Hence, it was not surprising that the majority of listeners rejected it. Even many musicians of the time were no exception to this rule. Under normal circumstances, this would not have been blameworthy: any innovative art conflicts with the conservative tastes with which society is brought up under the previous aesthetic paradigm. However, one cannot call normal the aesthetic circumstances in Soviet society. At that time, ideological oppression and subsequent persecution of artists became a routine phenomenon, the result of which was that the innate conservatism of the public found 'theoretical support' from above. It was this officially sanctioned conservatism which suppressed any possibility of progress in taste, and consequently, of a productive dialogue between the public and the artist. A situation very close to ostracism developed. The artist would sometimes find himself locked up in a prison of silence (unless he ended up in a real one).

There is no secret why totalitarian regimes are satisfied with conservatism in the artistic expectations of society: any forward movement in the social sphere carries a threat of the development of free thinking, and the arts have long been a strong catalyst of such processes. This, the authorities have always understood well. A list of those, who, while sometimes quite gifted, voluntarily 'ran down their flags', could be very long -- let us recall N. Roslavets, A. Mosolov, G. Popov, and L. Polovinkin. On the other hand, to keep one's right to real artistic freedom required common courage. Shostakovich's whole life took place under the 'high voltage' wire, in constant risk. He struggled ceaselessly for this right to a real, rather than false, art. The tactics of this struggle could change, but the strategy always remained the same. The unbending will of an artist was manifest in this struggle, an artist who survived everything that fate threw at him, and emerged victorious.

The victory of Shostakovich is even more amazing and extraordinary because, after all, it was his art (and we understand it more clearly now), which, over the course of many years, remained practically the only artistic event which, socially and substantively, actively resisted the totalitarian regime. Without risking exaggeration, we can say that dissidence was the unifying, integral feature of the entire artistic output of this great musician. And if we understand this, we must also note that the history of 'dissidence' among the Soviet intelligentsia finds its roots decades ago, and in fact began long before the time when this term itself appeared.

But let us come back to the problem of tradition. In our time, this concept has noticeably changed its range. From the heights of the end of the twentieth century, the wide panorama of the valley of time opens up, and the divide created in history by the post-war avant-garde is clearly visible today. By promoting new principles of organization of musical material, the post-war avant-garde decisively sidelined as obsolete all those spectacular innovations with which the art of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Bartok and other leaders of the first half of the century had stunned their contemporaries. Thus it became clear that, however revolutionary these finds had once been, they nevertheless remained within the boundaries of the system of musical language which had arisen in European music over the previous four centuries. In the music of the above-mentioned composers, pitch, intonation, mode, key, harmony, meter, dichotomy of theme and form, and so forth, were indeed preserved. Naturally, theirs were different types of intonation, mode, key, harmony, thematic construction, and so forth. However, the innovators of the first half of the twentieth century did not infringe on the quintessential foundations of musical art as it was understood at the time. In this sense, and only in this broad sense, does Shostakovich's art belong absolutely to tradition: the tradition of the homophonic system of musical language. There is no doubt that one can also find other indications of Shostakovich's ties to a more or less distant past of European and Russian music; for example, his treatment of genres, understanding of musical form, technique of thematic development, and much more. The threads linking him to the history of music are real and diverse and, with time, are becoming more obvious.

Shostakovich was an artist with a complex and tragicfate. Persecuted for almost his entire life and almost sharing the fate of Meyerhold, Mandel'shtam, and [the writer Varlam] Shalamov, he courageously endured hounding and persecution for the sake of what was most important in his life: his art. Occasionally, however, during the most complex conditions of political repression, he had to manoeuver. Without this manoeuvering, there would have been no Shostakovich art at all. Many of those who had started with him perished, while many others were brought to their knees. He survived and persevered, endured everything and, in the end, fulfilled his calling. And we can only bow before his fortitude and steadfastness.

What is important is not only how he is perceived and listened to today, but also who he was for his contemporaries. For those who listened attentively to his strong voice, filled with anxiety and, at times, breaking with despair, Shostakovich became a crucial symbol of intellectual integrity. For many years his music remained a safety valve which, for a few short hours, allowed listeners to expand their chests and breathe freely. At the time, his music was that truly indispensable lungful of freedom and dissidence, not only in its content, but also -- which is no less important -- in its musical form. However, first and foremost, we were grateful to Shostakovich for the fact that during those precious minutes of communion with his music, we were free to remain ourselves -- or, perhaps, to revert to ourselves. The sound of Shostakovich's music was not only always a celebration of high art, but also an interlude of truth. Those who knew how to listen to his music would take it away with them from the concert hall. His music became an emblem of spiritual experience and of hope for the future. It can be said, without exaggerating, that Shostakovich was the authentic conscience of his time. I would suggest that it is our task to carry over that understanding of his work into the present and to instill it into the coming generations of musicians and listeners.

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